Before the Covid-19 pandemic, video calls were a novel departure from normal every day business for most professionals. Leaders typically expected all cameras on with attendees fully engaged for the duration. Now that many professionals are nearing two years of days filled with back-to-back virtual calls, unpredictable childcare situations, digital distractions and other mentally taxing pandemic driven uncertainties, expectations seem to have shifted quite a bit. Cameras are off more frequently, virtual backgrounds are more popular and no one bats an eye when a pet or little one shows up on camera unexpectedly. While this may be a natural phenomenon of an unexpectedly protracted work-from-home reality for so many business professionals, Georgetown University professor, Jeanine Turner suggest that our new world of work will require us to reconsider and possibly redefine what presence really means.
“As our ability to pay attention in a world of distractions vanishes, it’s no wonder that our ability to be heard and understood—to convey our messages—is also threatened,” explains Turner. “Whether working with our teams and customers or communicating with our families and friends, it is increasingly difficult to break through the digital devices that get in the way of communication.” Turner insists that the ability to be socially present with an audience increasingly requires an intentional approach. Core to that approach are four “presence choices” that Turner insists we have when deciding how to allocate and command attention: budgeted, entitled, competitive, and invitational.
In Turner’s new book Being Present, she describes each type of presence and highlights benefits and risks associated with each.
This is a multi-communicating type of presence where you give part of your attention to one conversation and part to one or more conversations. Turner suggests that with this type presence you’re using your audience as an expenditure, and we should be aware that this is the type of presence that can unwittingly become a default. Indeed, we’re using budgeted presence when we check email while on a video call or scan our phone while talking to our partner.
We’ve all probably found ourselves here probably more than we’d like to admit because the beauty of budgeted presence is that it’s efficient—or so we think. The challenge though is that we may miss important information and/or risk damaging relationships if others feel slighted. Turner recommends, “Only do it if no one can see you, if there is a norm or expectation that no one is giving their full attention, or if you ask permission.”
This type of presence privileges your message over any other message your audience might be receiving. As a result, with this presence you’re trying to control the social presence of your audience—essentially treating your audience as a container. When you begin a call by insisting that everyone turn on their camera and silence their phone, you’re requesting entitled presence.
“If you have the power, status, or credibility in a situation, you have information that the audience needs, and or the situation demands it, entitled presence can be the right choice,” explains Turner. “Entitled presence works best when the audience agrees that they should be focusing on your message.” Turner warns though that insisting on this type of presence may frustrate or offend your audience, and you could lose your credibility for making that ask.
This presence is one where you focus on the needs of your audience and frame your message to persuade them to listen to you. Here, you are viewing your audience as an investor, and you are hoping that they choose to invest their attention in you. You know you are competing with their devices, and you hope they choose you.
This type of presence requires work on your part because you’re tailoring content to be so compelling and concise that it naturally garners the audience’s attention. To do this Turner recommends figuring out what your audience cares most about and framing your presentation in that context. She also recommends using storytelling or humor to keep them engaged and warns, “You still might not be able to keep their attention because they get distracted by another message.”
With this type of presence, you’re having a dialogue with your audience. You view your audience as a partner, and your goal is to share your ideas and to learn from them. “You don’t try to control what they do with their technology and instead are trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing ideas,” explains Turner.
A great example of this type of presence might be a brainstorming session where ideas are flowing quite organically, and there’s constant information exchange. Turner insists, “For this to happen, the communicators involved have to feel they are valued, and their perspective is valued.” She also warns though that there’s always a risk of having an audience that doesn’t feel comfortable sharing.
As teams move to hybrid models, they will need to tackle issues like presence to determine how to best engage to appropriately and reasonably balance needs for efficiency, productivity and individual interests. It’s naïve to assume that everyone will be 100% focused on a single speaker or presentation at any given time so teams should consider proactively discussing issues like presence in order to set appropriate expectations and potentially tailor individual events. Teams may decide to request participants’ full attention for much shorter periods of time in certain cases or in others strive for partial attention overall with dedicated focus during particular sections of the agenda. The key though seems to be simply acknowledging that all presence isn’t the same and as the work world becomes increasingly hybrid and/or remote, having the “presence discussion” will be key for defining how teams engage day to day.